This sermon was prepared for the United Theological College’s weekly chapel service. Year A, Proper 20.
Have you ever felt like you were being treated unfairly? That everyone else got more time, more stuff, or didn’t have to work quite as hard?
Growing up in a family of three, having everything be “fair” was a really big deal—partially because my parents stressed equality, but also because it’s tricky dividing things into thirds.
It was always five slices of pizza if the adults got some, and chocolate bars divided into three’s for the kids. Funny how so few packages of candy in threes—it’s always two or four—which almost always meant a struggle at our house.
It was very important for things to be fair.
Reading of Matthew 20:1-16
I interpret this passage, in light of the rest of the Book of Matthew, to represent God’s plan to include Gentiles in Jesus’ message of hope—extending it beyond Judaism to include others who didn’t get “in on the ground floor”, a topic we all know there some tension around in the early Jesus movement.
But, what does it mean for you and me?
This is a story about God’s justice—a confusing, infuriating justice that isn’t fair. God’s grace isn’t proportional to our faith, our prayer life, or our martyr-complex, even if we sometimes act like it is. God’s grace is abundant and available to everyone—equally.
And yet, sometimes we want to limit or contain it when it comes to what others receive.
Sometimes we want to say that God’s grace is only for people who’ve read the right theologians, who subscribe to the same kind of biblical criticism as we like, who have an inclusive theology, who think kids should be welcome in our church services… Sometimes we think God’s grace is only for the impoverished or the marginalized.
God may have a preferential option for the poor, but his grace is abundant and available to everyone, equally. With the caveat that we’re willing to accept it.
God also lacks the corruption of a human employer, who might not “play fair” to manipulate or punish. Instead, God invites all people into the fields and all workers to the bounty. He seeks out those who have been left behind and invites them to join in.
And, he challenges us, who’ve been at it a while longer, who feel like we’ve been working harder, to put aside our human concept of what’s “fair”. There is no “fair” in the Kingdom of God. Instead, those who would normally have less receive an abundance, and those who expected more get just the same.
There’s a popularized saying making the rounds right now: when you’ve experienced privilege, equality feels like oppression.
Just like the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son, just like Peter being chastised to continue to forgive others, sometimes God needs to knock us down a peg—to remind us that God’s kingdom plays by a different set of rules.
And, thank God, they’re not our rules, which so often are manifestations of our self-centeredness and bitterness. Instead, we’re invited into a kinship where there is work and bounty for all, which is better than fair.